or, How To Survive a Bihari Wedding.
The Party From Hell began like this: the train to sahersa leaves at 6:10 pm. it is two hours late. when it finally arrives, and you board, it remains sitting at the forbesganj station for another hour. and this is a narrow-gauge train; the old fashioned ones which the british mostly did away with. this means that it has no cushioning; the benches are steel slats, and if you’re vip you get to sit up on the similarly constructed luggage rack above the bench, with spiders the size of watermelons. this train is the slowest train on the planet, and it takes 8 hours to travel 120 kilometers. sleeping on such a train is laughable. luckily delirium makes everything hilarious; for example, the ‘chai lemonade’ which is dark tea with lemon juice, sugar, AND salt and tastes utterly foul. soon your body is bruised from the metal and your soul doesn’t know what’s going on. you try to sleep and soon find this laughable. so you stay awake until the train arrives in sahersa, at 4 in the morning.
you take a rickshaw down a bumpy, dirty road to the home of the groom’s aunt, where you are ushered in, given tea, and told to sleep. you lie down in the full-size bed, which has a mattress the thickness of your thumb and is stuffed with straw, and are soon joined by 4 women. you huddle there trying to sleep but give up at 6 when the roosters are crowing and the house has begun to bustle about making tea and so forth.
you walk through the city like a sleepwalker, to the groom’s parents’ house. there you find a roomful of toothless aunts, singing and swaying from their circle on the bed, feet folded under their sarees, backs hunched and shrunken. their chins have absorbed their gums and they peer at you curiously, wizened and crinkled.
you are shown to a room where you might be expected to sleep, but the acrid smell of dead rats (an assumption… given the amount of rat poop carpeting the floor) forbids this. so you read, and watch the town waking up, and go eat the massive breakfast that is laid before you (puri, pappar, aloo gobi, brinjal, dal, curd, rasgullah, rasmallay, barfee,) and then you brush your teeth without water because the tap runs brown.
after many, many hours it is finally time to get dressed. you are relieved because, having slept a total of one hour in the last 24, you are exhausted and want to be distracted by the spectacle of an indian wedding so you can then go home and go to bed. so you are wrapped into your saree, maroon and forest green, and though outwardly you appear to be an indian princess, draped in silk and sparkle, inwardly you have become aware that to eat that particular breakfast and to wear a saree is to develop instant indigestion. the non-elastic tightness of the waistband, upon which the whole ensemble is structurally dependent, soon cuts off all blood flow to your entire lower body. quite quickly the combination of sleeplessness, new food, and too tight a belt begins to cause discomfort that borders on pain. but you look so pretty, for the first time in months with your hair down and your lips painted… so you grin and bear it. you find the idea of getting food poisoning at the social event of the year hysterically hilarious.
an old woman stoops and paints the soles of your feet – and the feet of all the household’s women – red, in a ritual as old as india.
it is now 4 o’ clock in the afternoon. the groom’s family and guests are beginning to arrive to his parents’ house. the old women are still singing. the men greet each other with bows, and the younger generation touches the feet of their elders. you have been awake for 34 hours. the music throbs from the dj who has parked his speaker-laden truck in the street. the oldest and most withered of the aunties, having heard that you are a dancer, approaches you, and, with a few hindi words, asks if you will be, and here she pauses and then performs what can only be described as the non-verbal way to say ‘shaking your booty.’ she clenches her fists and bends over slightly and shakes her tail-feathers in a vague approximation of the twist. she is barely 4 feet tall.
when it begins to get dark everyone disperses into the waiting cars, to drive to the bride’s village 90 kilometers away. you find yourself in the back of a land-rover type vehicle (a tata scorpio…), piled on top of suitcases and backpacks. the car has 7 seats. it is carrying 10 people. the driver is a lunatic, and for the first time during your stay in india, you think you might die. the car narrowly avoids oncoming traffic, weaving between busses and buffalo and barreling over speed bumps so your head crashes into the ceiling of the vehicle. your indigestion is worsening and you fear for your saree, the car, and your life. not necessarily in that order. your friend’s husband tells you only need two things to drive in india: the horn and the accelerator.
3 hours of bumps and contortions in the car later, and you arrive at the bride’s village. it is now 9 pm. you haven’t had food or water in 12 hours, and it has been 39 since you last slept. you feel that you would rather lie in the car then witness a wedding, but you know this is not an option. in your thin saree you are cold and shivering, and despite your promise to yourself not to, you remove your jeweled, $3 sandals and put on your heavy, scuffed cowboy boots. you hope no one will notice but you don’t care if they do. fireworks are being set off and with every explosion you jump. you feel weak and feverish; dehydrated and exhausted.
but now, you think, the wedding will begin, and then it will be over, and then you can go home. someone is firing a shotgun into the sky and wants you to take a turn. you refuse, repeatedly. someone else is drunk and keeps saying, in hindi, come with me, come with me, leave your friends. like cattle, you are ushered into a tent, made of red and white fabric and with a set of thrones at the far end, draped with old towels. incense smoke fills the room. because you are the only white person, you are considered a guest of honour, and you and your friends are led to the front, to the seats closest the throne where the groom now sits. you look around and realize that you and your housemate are the only two women in the tent. you wish you were far in the back, so that you could lean over and retch without being seen. but you can’t. so you sit very still and try not to breath or digest. you are a celebrity here, and so everyone takes your picture, unceasingly. the videographer is in your face. the guests point their mobile phones at you. you try and arrange your face so it doesn’t look like you are on the verge of vomiting. but you are not sure you are successful, despite your thickly applied makeup.
but at least now you are sitting, NOW it will begin, and then it will be over.
you sit here for an hour. the shotgun is passed around and someone shoots through the tent’s roof. again they gather around you, pressing, urging, yelling at you to have a go. they want a picture of the white girl in a saree holding a rifle. you get tired of declining politely and your voice develops an edge. there is no possible way to sit that does not cause you massive gastrointestinal pain. so you shift in your seat as subtly as possible, wishing that the marriage would begin so that you would no longer be the center of attention.
but then a man comes; a relative of the bride’s. he summons you and your friend – the only two women- to come with him. you are squeezed into a tiny room in the tiny house in the tiny village. the bride sits on the bed, exactly as you would imagine her to. she is regal; beautiful, dripping in red and gold and fake jewels, her eyes downcast, her breathing steady. she has never met her husband-to-be. she has never even seen a photograph of him. and yet here she sits, as her sisters and aunties and cousins mill around her, her hands painted, every surface of her body adorned. her mother hugs you because you are a foreigner and her daughter’s wedding has just become More Important by your presence. you sit next to the bride and ask her if she’s scared. ‘no,’ she says, and, oddly, you believe her.
at midnight you are brought back to the tent. the thrones have disappeared and now the hall is lined with tables and chairs. you sit and are again the only two women in the room. and now is when your stomach pains are at their worst – sitting upright is torturous – but similarly, this is when you most wish to feel well, and above all to have appetite. the food begins to come, served unceremoniously out of tin buckets. puri… dal makhani… veg manchurian… aloo gobi… stewed paneer… pappar…salad…tomato chutney…palau… and handfuls (literally. and not clean hands…) of fresh rasgullah. village boys scamper back and forth with water. you refuse repeated offers of food, because you are sure you could not keep it down. you say you are fasting, and at this at last they understand. you writhe in discomfort and plan to be sick under the table and hope no one notices, though you know this to be impossible. people are taking far more picture of you than of the bride or groom. you feel badly about this, and about the fact that you surely look pained in all of these photos. but you decide it serves them right for not taking pictures of the happy couple instead of the unhappy guest.
at two in the morning you leave, finally. the party rages on but your friends have taken pity on you and your misery. you have managed to avoid having your picture taken with a shotgun. the bride has been led around the tree in the courtyard, singing, trailing thread and flowers. the groom has taken off his beaded headdress. every one chews pan and spits on the ground.
you pile into a car the size of a rickshaw; six of you where there ought to be three. you try and sleep with your head out the window, though you are shivering, so that you can vomit without having to stop the car. the pot holes and speed bumps never felt so deadly. but, at 5 in the morning, you arrive at your home. you collapse into bed and spend the next 5 days there, alternating between fever and chills, diarrhea and nausea. you feel that you are in a special kind of hell reserved for wedding guests, and you resolve to send ‘congratulations!’ cards in the future and avoid all indian nuptials. you are at once comforted by the fact that you will be going home for the holidays soon, and disturbed by the thought of being ill on an around-the-world flight. you pack up your life and bid the happy couple adieu, and you head home…
one of the toothless aunties… she who shook her booty at me…
sushmita, the bride.
men from sushimita’s village, come to escort the groom.
manish, the groom.
the tallest man at the wedding… which is why they wanted him to take a picture with me. sigh…